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A Preliminary to War: The 1st Aero Squadron and the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916

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On March 15, 1916, the 1st Aero Squadron arrived at Columbus, New Mexico. Led by Captain Benjamin D. Foulois, the squadron included 11 officers, 82 enlisted men, and 1 civilian technician. The men unloaded an automobile, 6 motorcycles, and 12 motor trucks, vehicles rare in an army still wedded to the horse and mule. These were followed by wooden crates containing 8 wood, wire, and fabric Curtiss JN-3 biplanes, every airplane owned by the U.S. Army, save those assigned to its aviation school at San Diego, California. The squadron was in Columbus to join an expedition commanded by Brig. Gen. John J. Black Jack Pershing. President Woodrow Wilson had ordered Pershings force into Mexico in response to a March 9 attack on the tiny border town by the Mexican desperado, Francisco Pancho Villa. For the first time, the U.S. Armys entire air force -- the 1st Aero Squadron -- had deployed for an active campaign. The 1st Aero Squadron played a significant role in the Punitive Expedition, but, in dramatic contrast to how an air force functions today, it served as a means of communication and observation, not as a combatant arm. Some experiments with bombs and machine guns had been conducted, and the war in Europe was quickly turning the airplane into a serious weapon of war. Nevertheless, U.S. Army leaders envisioned aviations primary mission to be the receipt and transmission of information for tactical commanders and long-distance scouting as an adjunct to the cavalry. Accordingly, during the mobile phase of the Punitive Expedition, the 1st Aero Squadron enabled Pershing to locate and communicate with his widely dispersed, fast-moving columns and carried dispatches between Pershings main and advanced bases. The squadron also scouted for hostile forces and kept a watch for threats to Pershings line of communications. These efforts were made in some of the worst weather and poorest conditions imaginable, and by the end of April, all eight airplanes had been destroyed7

Subject Categories:

  • Military Aircraft Operations
  • Humanities and History
  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

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